THE BALLAD OF MR. MEAD
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven television show is the property of MGM/UA, Trilogy and the Mirisch Corporation. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s), not me. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring it to life.
Characters: Ezra, a villain, and a dash of Inez, Chris, Josiah and Nathan.
Genre/Rating: Gen (Action/Adventure) / K+ (for language and violence)
Status: Complete (One Part)
A/N: Just a short story I wrote to kick the muse in gear.
Description: In the middle of the night, Ezra and Inez hear someone downstairs in the saloon. Put it this way, it's not the cat.
Inez sat upright in bed, the blanket grasped tightly to her chest, and held her breath.
Did she just hear….?
Another crash from below confirmed it: someone was downstairs in the bar. Breaking things. A black moment of fury clouded her judgment, but reason quickly returned. It couldn't be Ezra, so who? She'd locked up tight, she was sure. How did they get in?
Throwing back the covers, she grabbed her robe and padded to the door. Putting her ear to it, she waited, hand reaching for the rifle propped against the wall.
No boards creaked, no voices whispered.
Releasing another held breath, she grabbed the rifle, cocked it and cracked the door open to look outside. The upper hallway was as it should be, silent and empty, lit only by the moonlight from the slim window above the backstairs. Rifle first, she slid out her door and into the hall, pausing a moment to make sure she hadn't been heard.
Glass shattered somewhere down below, and Inez nearly jumped out of her skin. With a quicker step, she tiptoed across to Ezra's door, raising her hand to knock.
And froze as the door flew open, the barrel of a Remington inches from her nose, her breath stuttering in her throat. Ezra drew the gun back just as quickly, frowning at her, and gestured her inside.
"There's someone downstairs," she whispered as he shut the door behind her. "I double-bolted both the front and the back. How did they get in?"
He shook his head, putting a finger to his lips. She noticed he already had his pants and his holster on, though his upper body was bare, his nightshirt lying on the bed. He'd obviously awakened before she had, and had been preparing to head down there. Putting the Remington back in the holster on his hip, he grabbed the colt lying next to the bed and checked the chamber for bullets. Once satisfied it was full, he closed it up and turned a questioning gaze on her. He was asking if she was ready.
She nodded, gripping the rifle tightly in her hands.
He opened his door and slipped into the hallway, staying close to the wall. She followed on his heels, watching his foot fall. He had learned this floor: where he stepped, the wood didn't creak.
It didn't take long to reach the landing of the stairs leading down, and Ezra crouched down, leaning forward to peer through the banister. Inez slipped down behind him, studying the source of the noise from below.
A large man was rummaging behind the bar, slamming bottles onto the wooden top as he found them. With the windows shuttered and the storm door firmly shut, it was difficult to see who it was in the heavy shadow of the lower room. The windows higher up on the second floor afforded some light, but not enough to know more than his general size and shape. The hat didn't help.
Ezra frowned, and looked over his shoulder at Inez. "Who is it?" he mouthed.
She shrugged. She didn't know. "What do we do?" she mouthed back. He grimaced, and then frowned before waving her back into the hall.
Once she had retreated deep enough into the shadows, he followed and leaned into her space so he could whisper into her ear. She could smell his skin, and her heart beat a little faster.
"I'm going to say hello," he said softly. "Find out what he wants."
Her eyes widened. "What if he's dangerous?" she hissed.
"He's not robbing you," he answered, glancing towards the front stairs. "Seems to just want a drink."
"Then he should have come when we were open," Inez snapped, trying to still her nerves. "And how did he get in?"
"Back door?" Ezra suggested, and then lowered his lips closer to her ear. "Which is how I suggest you leave."
"Chris, too, if he's awake. He might be."
"For now." He leaned away from her, and his eyes were bright in the dim light. For a moment, he just studied her, her face, her lips….as if he would kiss her. Inez trembled again, but for a different reason. Then he was a full step back and out of her space.
"You'd better hurry," he whispered, stuffing the colt behind his back into his trousers. He drew the Remington again, twisting it around his right finger, and then smiled coyly. "Just in case," he added.
Her gaze narrowed at the cavalier attitude, but she nodded. Still holding the rifle close, she tiptoed away, heading towards the narrow back stairs that would lead to the kitchens. When she reached the end of the hall, she looked over her shoulder, but Ezra was already to the landing, kneeling and looking down through the banister again.
"Be safe," she whispered.
Ezra frowned, trying to ascertain as much about the man below as possible. The stranger had finished rummaging for alcohol, and was now lining up all the whiskey bottles on the bar in a line, softly counting them. The voice was low-pitched, but not gravelly, a little like Josiah's, when the preacher was speaking in parables.
The man stopped counting suddenly, leaned against the bar, and lifted his head.
"I know you're up there," he called lightly.
Ezra arched an eyebrow. Well, so much for the element of surprise. Still, there was no apparent anger in the stranger's voice so….
Slowly, to show he wasn't a threat, he stood up and rested his Remington on the top of the banister. "Sir, I'm afraid you may have mistaken the locked doors as a welcome sign," he offered, keeping his tone as light as the other man's. "They were not."
The man turned his head and tipped it back, looking directly up at Ezra with glittering eyes. In the low-light, they reminded Ezra of a wolf, and his blood ran cold, the realization coming just a second too late.
Quick as a snake, the man had a gun pointed at him, hammer cocked, and Ezra breathed out heavily. Holy hell, the man was fast, maybe even faster than Chris. And it meant the Remington was all but useless, since Ezra hadn't had a chance to lift it from where it rested.
"Throw the gun away," the man ordered quietly.
Ezra really didn't have a choice. He tossed the Remington down into the room, careful to make note of where it landed, somewhere near the woodstove in the center. Not that it meant much—it was so dark down there, he really only had a general vicinity.
The man kept the gun level with Ezra's head, watching as Ezra raised both hands.
The stranger hummed, and lowered his gun. For a moment, Ezra considered pulling the colt, but had a feeling he wouldn't even get the hammer back before the man below put a bullet in his brain.
"Come down here," the stranger ordered.
Ezra bit back a rude remark at being commanded, and walked slowly down the steps, never taking his eyes off the stranger.
When he hit the bottom stair, he had a better grasp of the man's height where the other still stood behind the bar. About six foot, give or take an inch. He could also make out light colored hair beneath the Stetson styled hat, probably blond or gray, and a pale moustache. His face was unremarkable. Only the eyes stood out—solid black inside the white, almost demon-like. Ezra knew it was because of the low light, but his imagination still shivered.
"You own this place?" the man asked.
"Me?" Ezra replied. "No. Well, I used to. Briefly. Now I just…no."
"Then why you here?"
"I live here."
"And the manager?"
Ezra swallowed, and shrugged. The man snorted, lips creasing into a bloodless smile.
"Gone for the sheriff, yes?" he asked. "Not surprised. I'd 've done the same when I owned her." He touched the bar almost reverently.
Ezra's eyebrows lifted. "You owned her?"
"Built her, more like," the man said, head lifting as he studied the large room. "Long time ago. Feels like a lifetime ago." He dropped his head to stare at Ezra again. "If you're wondering how I got in, you might want to tell the manager that the hinges on the back door are loose. Only took a little force to get them out.
Ezra nodded. He'd used that trick once or twice. "Good to know."
"You might also think about telling the manager to get a dog. Dogs are great. I had a dog."
"I'll suggest it to her," Ezra said.
That perked the man up. "Her?"
And, just like that, the man had a wide grin on his face. "She pretty?"
Ezra blushed. "Uh…"
"Well," the man laughed gruffly, "guess I know now why you live here, eh?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed, immediately defensive. "It's not like that. She's my friend."
The man hummed again. "I see. Won't put out, eh? Yeah, those kind of women can drive you insane. Give them a little responsibility, they think they're the man." He shook his head.
"I said," Ezra repeated, his hands gripping into fists even as he kept his voice low and level, "it's not like that."
The man didn't answer, just eyed him for a moment. Finally, he nodded, sighed, and then beckoned Ezra closer. Ezra stayed where he was. The stranger snorted.
"Can't offer you a drink if you're that far away, Johhny Reb."
"They're not your drinks to offer."
"Ah," the man laughed again. "Threaten the lady, and he grows a backbone. Isn't that interesting." The stranger grabbed the bottle closest to the closed end of the bar and took a swig. When he lowered it, Ezra had the colt in hand, pointed at him.
The stranger grinned, looking mildly impressed. "That supposed to mean something?" he asked.
"It means you should step out from behind there and put your hands on your head."
The man smiled again, white teeth bright in the dim light. Still holding the bottle in one hand, he did as he was told, walking down the bar at a measured pace. He took two more swigs on the way, the second one nearly emptying the bottle.
When he reached the end, he stopped once more and dumped the rest of the whisky down his gullet, and Ezra tried not to wince. He appreciated the effects of the liquid, but taking a whole bottle down that fast…he was pretty sure he'd be vomiting in the back alley within minutes if it'd been him.
The stranger stared at him, holding the empty loosely. Then he let it go, and Ezra involuntarily followed it with his eyes as the bottle hit the floor.
The loud retort of the gun, and the stinging pain in his right shoulder had him gasping and staggering backwards, running into a table. Damn, his speed with that gun was unnatural! Miraculously, Ezra still held the colt, but the grip was weak. Twice in one night, he had been bested, and he should have had the man dead to rights.
"Drop that one too," the stranger suggested, still smiling. Panting with pain, Ezra met the cold gaze, measuring it.
Lord, but this man was as terrifying as Larabee. For the first time he could remember, Ezra was actually scared what would happen if Chris showed up to rescue him, afraid that the storied man in black might lose. He dropped the colt on the table, and stepped away from it, his left hand wrapping around his bleeding shoulder.
"That's going to hurt like hell in the morning," the stranger noted, grabbing a new bottle off the bar. "Now come here."
Ezra drew in a heady breath, lifted his chin, and walked towards the bar.
"Sit," the man ordered, gesturing to the stools. Ezra sat.
Smiling again, the man walked around him, eyeing him up and down. "No more guns, yes? Not unless there's a derringer in your pocket. Is there?"
"No," Ezra replied, gritting his teeth against the pain.
"You've got a nice scar on the side there, just under your ribs. Looks like a bullet cut through you not too long ago. Am I right?"
Ezra tensed his jaw, but didn't answer. No need for this man to know about what happened with the governor a few weeks back.
"Right then," the man said, going back around the bar. Once there, he put the gun away inside the long, dark coat he was wearing, and Ezra got a glimpse of a plain black vest underneath.
"So, what's your name, Johnny?" the stranger asked.
"Ezra. What's yours?"
"Rick. Rick Mead."
"What do you want, Mr. Mead?"
"A drink." He had already wrapped his hand around the neck of yet another bottle. "Problem is, somewhere along the line, whiskey became like water to me. Takes a lot of it now to really kick me in the head."
"And you want to be kicked in the head tonight?"
"I do," the man said, grinning anew. He took a swig, then offered the bottle to Ezra.
"Thank you," Ezra replied, "but no. I finished my drinking a while ago, when the bar was open for business."
Rick snorted, nodding. "I getcha, Ezra. You think I should've be drinking during the same hours as the rest of the normal folk. And you'd be right, except," he shook his head, "I ain't normal."
Ezra sighed. "So I've discerned."
The man smiled again, and took another swig. "You want to know why I'm here, Ezra?"
"Provided such knowledge does not immediately result in my death, yes."
Rick laughed, shaking his head. "You've got a mind, doncha? A little bit smarter than everyone else, I bet. Quick witted. Sharp tongue. That about right?"
"We're not talking about me."
"Oh, but we are. Because it'll help me decide whether to kill you when I leave. Initially," he took another drink from the bottle in his hand, "I was thinking to kill you, because you ain't made a move on your 'friend' the manager, which is a sign of a weak-will. Then you showed me that colt, and I thought, maybe you're worth something after all. Now you're sitting there, staring at me like I'm dirt, and I'm back to thinking you're someone I should teach a lesson. What do you say?"
Ezra swallowed. And then smiled. "That I think I'd like that drink now."
The man grinned, and handed Ezra the bottle he'd been drinking from. "Atta boy!"
The whiskey burned going down, and Ezra grimaced, hating the cheap stuff. Still, it helped dull the pain a little, and stop the shivering plaguing him. What did Nathan call it? Shock? He put the bottle down, and found the stranger looking around the room again. The grin had faded, replaced by something a little bemused.
"You really built this place?" Ezra asked.
"I did. It was the third building to be finished in this town, after the sheriff's office and the stage depot. People were happy to pitch in—everybody wanted a bar to relax in."
Ezra didn't doubt that. "So, why'd you leave? Bought out?"
Rick snorted. "Hell no. Forced out. Bunch of ranchers and cowboys came through town, threatening everyone they could find. They liked the bar, so they mostly left me alone. They didn't leave my wife alone, though." The glittering eyes narrowed dangerously, and Ezra found himself wishing he'd put his derringer in his pocket after all.
"I'm sorry," he offered softly.
The stranger's eyes zeroed in on him, and Ezra stopped breathing. Eventually, though, Rick turned away and grabbed another bottle.
"You should tell the manager to keep fewer bottles up front, especially at night. She has thirty back here, near as I can tell. No way you're going to go through that many in one night. It just encourages breakage."
Ezra nodded. "I'll tell her."
"Who is the Glenlivet for? You?"
"Figured. Can't stomach the cheap stuff, right? You look persnickety to me."
Ezra just smiled lightly, and Rick lapsed into silence, fingering yet another new bottle. That'd make his fourth, since Ezra had first started watching him. Who knew how many he'd drunk before they'd heard him down here.
Too much for a sane man to drink and not, well, die.
"So," the man said, lifting his gaze once more to Ezra's, "you want to know why I'm here?"
"If you want to tell me."
The man smiled, but it wasn't friendly. "There's some men outside, men I've ridden with for nigh on four years now. Not sure I like 'em much, but they're good men to have at your back. None of 'em has ever turned on me, which is nice."
Ezra nodded, and took another drink of whiskey when the shivering grew painful. "Friends are important."
"Didn't say they were friends, son. Anyway, we rode in here tonight with pretty much only one idea in mind." He met Ezra's eyes evenly. "To rob that pretty bank you got there. Word is, the town is growing by leaps and bounds, lots of new money coming in. So, we aim to take some of it."
Ezra didn't blink. "Makes sense," he said mellowly. He'd guessed as much.
"For some reason, I didn't really put together the fact that this town was my old town until we crossed into the valley. Name's changed. Was called—"
"Paso del Norte," Ezra supplied.
Rick inclined his head. "Yeah. Four Corners is much more American, eh? To help score statehood, right? I saw the flyers round town."
"I couldn't say. I wasn't here when they changed it."
"How long have you been here?"
"A little over a year."
"You know how the town managed to turn itself around? Why the ranchers backed off? I would've thought it to be a ghost town by now."
"It took some doing." Ezra lowered his head, blinking back the graying at the edge of his vision. His head had begun to pound. "The law here had something to do with it."
"The law," Rick leaned against the bar, rubbing his head. "Heard rumors that the sheriff has some fast shooters at his side."
"You could say that."
"Seven of them."
Ezra didn't reply, just smiled softly.
Rick tilted his head. "Well, good. Glad the town finally got something going for it. Not going to help them tonight though."
Ezra frowned. His mind was beginning to get fuzzy, but there was something about the man's confidence that was unnerving. "Why not?"
"Because we got hostages. By now," Rick looked up at the clock behind the bar, "your lady manager has been taken. One of my men was watching the back door. We also guessed that the local preacher would be in the back of the church, so we should have him by now as well. And anyone else walking about, we'd have grabbed. And, of course," the cold smile returned, "there's you."
Ezra nodded, trying very hard to hold onto his calm, but the shaking was making it hard. "I see."
"I taught these boys the power of always taking hostages first. Been a great boon to our work."
"I can imagine. Something you were taught yourself a long time ago, I would guess, back when you were still living here."
"You'd guess right." The smile hardened.
Ezra's blood ran cold, torn between hating this man, and feeling sorry for him. "So now what?"
"Now…" Rick pursed his lips, looking around again. "My men will rob the bank. Then I'm going to burn this saloon down to the ground and dance in the ashes. Then, I'm going out to the James' ranch and I'm going to burn that to the ground, his and any other ranch in the area. They're all going down."
"And the people who live there?"
Rick was silent for a long moment, finishing bottle number four. He grabbed the fifth, swirling the liquid around inside.
"She should water this stuff down more," he noted.
"I'll tell her when I see her," Ezra whispered quietly, before leaning forward, close enough to reach across and grab the other man. He rested his hands between the remaining full bottles.
Rick said nothing at the move. He simply drew his gun out again and pointed it at Ezra's head.
"You so sure you'll see her again, Ezra?"
"I know I will." Ezra smiled softly. "Because I can see her now. She's up there on the landing, pointing a rifle at your head."
Rick's expression froze, staring at Ezra. Ezra could see the wheels turning, and the black eyes seemed to lose some of their intensity.
With the same inhuman speed as before, Rick turned and fired his gun towards the empty upper landing. Ezra threw himself at the bottles, shoving them at the man, and grabbing one by the neck so that, when Rick turned, Ezra slammed it across his gun hand.
Rick bellowed in pain. Ezra was already moving, throwing himself down under the tables and sliding towards the woodstove in the middle. A glimpse of shiny metal: a sliver of moonlight touching the edge of his Remington.
Bullets followed him, impacting the tables, gouging holes into the wooden floor. Rick was shouting, bottles were shattering, and Ezra had the Remington in hand.
He twisted onto his back, gun in both hands, pointed towards the bar.
Rick stood practically on top of him, breathing hard, having tossed tables aside to chase the lithe southerner. The large man grinned, staring down at Ezra's gun, and then at the man himself.
"Standoff," Rick said cheerfully, grinning again. "Now what, Ezra?"
"Now," Ezra replied, also breathing hard, his head swimming, "it would be in your best interest to give up."
Rick's eyebrows lifted, and his grin broadened. "My best interest, eh? Cute. It's a shame, really. I think I would've let you live, Ezra. Gotta lot of gumption for a little man."
"I'm not joking," Ezra said, the gun beginning to shake in his hands. "You should give up now."
Rick's grin fell completely. "And why's that, son?"
"Because I still want to own this bar someday, and I can't do that if you burn it to the ground."
Rick snorted a laugh, his eyes bright. "As I said," he muttered almost distantly, "it's a shame."
The large man's arm straightened to fire, but Ezra was first, pulling the trigger…and missing completely when Rick simply dodged left, laughing like a madman.
Rick whipped around at the shout from above, too fast, gun pointed and firing. No! He'd kill….
The large man gasped, staggering as bullets slammed into him, jerking his chest away from his legs…three, four, five…His eyes widened almost comically, and red blood ran out of the corner of his mouth, garish in the pale light.
"How…?" he gurgled, his gun falling from loose fingers. His limbs stopped work then, crumpling like a rag doll.
He landed in a heap next to Ezra, and the pale southerner backed away, kicking out to dislodge the man's gun, even if the black eyes now appeared lifeless.
Shaking something fierce, Ezra looked up at Chris Larabee standing on the upper landing, the other man still pointing his gun at Rick's body. Still the fastest. Thank God.
"About time," Ezra breathed. He'd seen him appear up there after he'd made his crazy dive for the Remington, but hadn't been wholly certain that Chris was real, not with his mind playing tricks with the shadows. "I really must insist you amend the 'not in the back' rule, however; that was unnecessarily close." He rested his head on the floor, blinking drowsily. "Albeit much appreciated."
Chris just inclined his head to that, smiling wryly. "You okay, Ezra?" he asked, as Inez popped her head out over Chris's shoulder. She smiled down at him, then gasped. She was charging down the stairs before Ezra could even answer.
Ezra watched her come, feeling disinclined to move, and looked up again at Chris. The gambler started to smile, and then stopped, a chilling thought entering his head.
Chris smiled. "Is fine. They actually thought they could sneak up on the preacher in his own house, and pass Vin's wagon on the way and not alert him either. Idiots, really."
"Not a scratch. Better than you." Which was very true, especially as Inez dived to the floor next to him, already trying to see how bad the gunshot wound was by grabbing his shoulder.
"Ow!" he whined, as she poked. "Damn it, Inez!" She pouted a little, and stood up, drawing her robe around her frame regally.
"I'll get some clean cloths," she snarled, stomping away. Chris chuckled up above.
Ezra closed his eyes, blowing the air out of his cheeks as he tried to get his bearings back, his left hand wrapping around his right shoulder again. Damn, it hurt.
"So, that guy tell you who he was?" Chris asked.
"Rick…Richard, I suppose…Mead," Ezra replied, trying to calm the dizziness. "Used to live here. Said he built this place."
"Hunh. I was wondering why he spent so long in here with you."
"Yeah." Ezra glanced down at the dead man. "I think he wanted to talk."
"You're good at that."
Ezra smiled dryly, looking up again.
"Good thing, too," Chris said, oddly warm. "Gave us enough time to save you and the others."
Ezra tried to shrug off the compliment, but hissed in pain instead and grabbed more tightly at his shoulder. Talk about an idiot. When he looked up again, Chris was frowning anew at Rick's body.
"Did he tell you how many men he has?" he asked. Back to business.
"Four?" Chris sounded surprised.
Ezra frowned in worry. "Did you miss one?"
"No, I uh…huh." Chris actually looked a little sheepish. "Maybe that guy was innocent, after all." He gave a half smile. "I might need to tell JD to let someone go."
Ezra snorted a laugh, and then closed his eyes as a particularly sharp burst of pain rolled through his body from his shoulder to his toes.
When he opened them again, lids unwillingly peeling back from burning eyes, it was to a fully lit saloon. Inez was next to him, and Nathan was there as well, bandaging his arm. The body of Rick Mead was gone. Chris stood over Nathan's shoulder, his arms crossed, his expression one of reluctant concern; it was his standard expression when any of them was hurt. It was weirdly heartwarming, and Ezra would have laughed it he didn't hurt so damned much.
Nathan smiled softly upon seeing Ezra's eyes blinking up at him.
"Gonna have Josiah and Chris carry you upstairs in a minute," he said softly.
"I can walk," Ezra said. Or at least he tried to. What actually came out of his mouth sounded more like, "icawug," and barely rose over a whisper. Nathan just grinned, patted his head, and stood up.
"I'm sure you think so," the healer said, crossing his arms. "You might even make it to the bottom of the steps before fainting from pain and blood loss. But, either way, we'll just end up carrying you. So, why suffer when you have friends around to help you?"
Josiah appeared and Inez backed off.
"Ready?" Josiah asked, kneeling down next to him, and Chris took Nathan's place on the other side.
Ezra smiled weakly. "It's good to have friends," he slurred, already falling asleep again.
Josiah's answering grin was bright.
"Oh, and…" Blinking to stay awake, he found Inez's eyes a few feet away, and smiled dreamily. "I think we should get a dog."
The End. Thanks for reading! Feel free to email me any notes or feedback, if you feel so inclined!